Crucial Conversations: Part 1 of 2

Talking to almost anyone about almost anything (Part I)

Have you ever had to have a conversation you just knew was not going to go well? I’m not talking about the “where do you want to go for dinner?” conversation. I’m talking about the “I don’t like the way you’re treating me” or the “you’re not doing what I have asked you to do” conversation. Think about a conversation you’ve been avoiding because it’s just too hard. If you were to write down the first few sentences of what you wanted to say to that person with no holds barred—being totally honest about your feelings—how do you think it would go? For most of us, when we make the decision that it won’t go well, we choose instead to avoid the issue, which often turns out to be no better than plowing ahead.

What if there was a way you could speak your mind and tell the other person what you really thought, but do it in a way that was so respectful, you could keep your emotions under control and help the other person really hear what you were saying? That is exactly the goal of the model known as “crucial conversations.”

Crucial Conversations is a book that was written by Kerry Patterson, Joseph Grenny, Ron McMillan, and Al Switzler with the sole purpose of helping people stay in dialogue even when it’s difficult to do so. The focus is on:

  • Identifying what defines a crucial conversation
  • How to get clear on what the outcome is that you really want
  • How to separate your stories from the facts
  • How to respectfully and candidly hold the conversation

In this blog, I’d like to discuss the first two items. Next month, we’ll take a look at the last two items.

So, how do you know what makes up a crucial conversation? And why does it matter? The authors of the book give three conditions that must be met for a conversation to meet the criteria of being crucial. They are:

1. The stakes are high.
2. Emotions are strong.
3. Opinions differ.

Can you see how any one of those elements not being present makes the conversation dramatically easier to hold? If you and I disagree on an issue, and we even have strong emotions about the issue, but the stakes aren’t high, it’s much easier (and possibly much more productive) for either of us to just give in. It simply doesn’t matter who’s right if the stakes aren’t high. If the stakes are high and we disagree, but strong emotions aren’t there, we can likely hold the conversation without hurt feelings or defensiveness. Finally, with high stakes and strong emotions, but no differing opinions, we are in agreement, so where’s the problem?

Clearly, each of these three elements must be present in order for us to consider this a crucial conversation. And once we’ve decided a conversation is crucial, we better be on our toes, because how we handle this kind of conversation can make or break the relationship, the team, or the results we’re trying to achieve.

Now that we’ve identified the conversation as crucial, the next thing to do is to step back. That’s right—the next step is to NOT charge forward, but to step back. Ask yourself, “What do I really want here?” The authors call this “start with heart.” If you enter into this conversation with the goal of winning the argument, placing blame, or “getting this off your chest,” the chances of both parties remaining in dialogue and achieving a desired outcome are slim. You’ve got to decide what you really want. For most of us, if we take a moment to step back and really evaluate, we realize that we want the behavior to stop (or we want it to start), we want the relationship to be strengthened, or we want to move forward and achieve a result. If we keep our eye on the goal, it helps us to stay in dialogue. The moment we resort to other motives such as saving face or making the other person feel sorry for what they’ve done is the moment we lose the battle.

If we can get ourselves prepared by identifying the conversation is indeed a crucial conversation, and then begin to prepare ourselves by getting clear on what we really want, we’ll be in a position to do the last two things: separate our stories from the facts, and then hold the conversation both candidly and respectfully. We’ll talk about how to do this in our post, Crucial Conversations, Part 2 of 2.

Source: Crucial Conversations: Tools for Talking When Stakes Are High, by Kerry Patterson, Joseph Grenny, Ron McMillan, and Al Switzler

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